Obama task force determine fate of terror detainees

Martha Rayner in AFP, February 21, 2009

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WASHINGTON (AFP) — President Barack Obama's administration stepped up efforts Friday to shut the Guantanamo prison, appointing a former federal prosecutor to determine the fate of the controversial camp's remaining prisoners.

The "Guantanamo Detainee Review Task Force," led by former Department of Justice official Matthew Olson, was announced by Attorney General Eric Holder days before his visit to the war-on-terror detention facility.

Olsen's team is to consolidate all the disparate information held by numerous branches of the US government on 240 remaining detainees -- and to determine what do with those who cannot be released or prosecuted.

After deciding if a detainee can be released or transferred to another country, the task force is to determine if it is feasible to pursue a prosecution in a court under US laws.

And in the most difficult category, a legal quagmire for the Obama administration, the Guantanamo review is to determine what to do with remaining detainees who cannot be transferred, released or prosecuted.

For these people the task force will "select lawful means ... for the disposition of such individuals," according to Obama's executive order, which does not elaborate on what could be done with the men.

The move follows Obama's executive order on January 22 to close the US naval base prison in southwest Cuba within a year.

At the time the newly inaugurated Obama set a determined tone to unleash fundamental political reform on how the United States handles Al-Qaeda and other militant suspects. He said the "war on terror" would no longer continue with a "false choice between our safety and our ideals."

More than 800 men and teenagers have passed through Guantanamo since it was opened on January 11, 2002, as a place to ship suspects in the "war on terror" begun by Obama's predecessor George W. Bush in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

As a leader of the Department of Justice National Security Division and a 12-year career as federal prosecutor, Olsen "has the experience and judgement to lead the team's evaluation of these individual cases," Holder said in a statement.

"We've established a solid framework for the administration to make the right decision on each individual detainee -- decisions that will most effectively serve the interests of justice and the national security and foreign policy objectives of the United States," he said.

Earlier Friday the Pentagon announced it had completed a review ordered by Obama examining conditions at Guantanamo to ensure inmates are held in keeping with the Geneva Conventions and other laws.

The Defense Department has always maintained the detainees have been held under humane and lawful conditions, but human rights groups have repeatedly raised concerns that the United States violated its legal obligations by holding large numbers of the inmates in extreme isolation.

Fordham Law Professor Martha Rayner, who represents several Guantanamo detainees, called on Holder and other department officials Friday to "talk to the men that are locked up there."

Other politicians and government officials have visited the camp since its opening, but have only taken "the stock tour orchestrated by prison officials," she said.

Visitors will not be able to grasp the "truth of Guantanamo" if they do not talk to detainees who have experienced "torture, so-called 'harsh interrogation techniques' and being at the mercy of interrogators to obtain something as basic as a blanket," she said.

The legal quandary experienced by detainees that are not released or prosecuted troubles many rights groups.

When Obama signed the executive order, Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, called on the US government to deal with the remaining prisoners in accordance with international law.

But, he said, "if the federal government cannot secure conviction with its vast resources and eight years of intelligence-gathering, then the American way requires that those individuals who are not convicted of a crime must be released."

Security concerns were raised late last month after it emerged a former inmate identified as Abu Sufyan al-Azdi al-Shahri had been elevated to the senior ranks of Al-Qaeda in Yemen.

The Defense Department acknowledged that as many as 61 former Guantanamo detainees -- about 11 percent of 520 detainees transferred from the detention center and released -- are believed to have returned to engage in terrorist activity.